Control Engineering Salary and Survey, Advice

Career Update: The 2012 Control Engineering salary and career survey showed enthusiasm for automation, controls, and instrumentation professions. Pay is up, and survey respondents encouraged those interested in engineering to continue learning. Strategies for workplace success follow.

By Mark T. Hoske March 6, 2012

Control Engineering’s salary and career survey for 2012 showed enthusiasm for the profession, and respondents encouraged peers and youth interested in engineering to continue learning throughout their lives. Eighty percent of respondents said they appreciate where they work, and half of those (40%) love it. More than 70% saw an increase in base salary and a majority saw total compensation, salary, and bonuses increase. Strategies follow for workplace success in automation, controls, and instrumentation-related engineering fields.

Click here to download the complete 2012 career and salary survey results in graphic form.

Respondent profile

Controls engineer was the most common title, followed by senior engineer, then electrical engineer. “Other” titles, taken as a whole, would have ranked second.

Employees supervised were 41% none, 33% 1-5, 19% 6-25, and 5% 26-100. These relatively small numbers may reflect an average time at company under 9 years among respondents, with 12% less than a year, 29% at 1-4 years, 23% at 5-9 years, and 11% at 10-14 years. More than 12% were at their company 20 years or more.

Time in industry trended higher, however, with just 3% under 1 year, 13% at 1-4 years, 16% at 5-9 years, 11% at 10-14 years, 18% at 15-19 years, and nearly 40% were there 20 years or more.

Highest level of education varied, though 71% completed an engineering degree and 48% have an engineering undergraduate degree. More than 20% have advanced degrees.

Engineering disciplines were 58% electrical engineering, 34% controls, 18% instrumentation, 14% mechanical, 10% chemical, and 9% industrial.

Just over 5% of respondents were women.

Average age was just over 38, though the largest age range was 40-49 at more than 37%.

Average work week was 44 hours, although almost 22% said they work 50 or more hours a week.

Salary, skills, satisfaction

Base compensation increased last year over the prior year for 73% of respondents, and just 2% saw a decrease. Largest number of respondents for base salary was $75,001-$100,000 at 28%, and second largest was $50,001-$75,000; 14% get $125,001 or more for base salary.

Most important basis for bonuses was company profits at 67%. The next single important criterion was plant or line productivity at 21%, then product profitability, closely followed by quality metrics, then safety metrics.

In overall compensation, base pay plus bonuses, 53% said overall compensation increased, 43% said it remained the same, and 4.4% said it decreased.

Just 6% said work group size decreased in number, with 54% noting it stayed the same; 40% saw an increase.

A whopping 80% appreciate where they work, with half of those (40%) saying they love to go to work every day. Just 3% said they were “outta here” first chance they get. About 17% consider themselves in tolerable situations but have their “ears open.”

Biggest perceived threat was inadequate management at 25%, followed by lack of available skilled workers at 16% and government interference at 13%, followed closely by 11% who thought downsizing had hurt productivity. (A diversity of other threats totaled 30%.)

Project management: A whopping two-thirds of respondents said the project-management skill set was the most needed. Communication and presentation skills were next at 46%, followed by 43% engineering skills and 35% computer skills. About 13% desired additional language skills, and 11% want more marketing and sales skills.


Nearly two-thirds (64%) felt, with their abilities, that manufacturing was a secure area in which to work.

Sustainability-related issues do play a role in their jobs, according to 72%.

Highest areas of emphasis are dominated by automation and controls at 49% and operations 37%, with other choices in the low single digits.

Areas that respondents felt should have the highest emphasis were automation and controls 52%, operations 18%, maintenance 12%, followed by training and safety at 7% and energy 4%.

Areas with greatest impact on job satisfaction beyond salary (51% chose that) were technical challenge 39%, feeling of accomplishment 33%, opportunities for advancement 21%, job security 20%, relationships with colleagues 19%, workload 17%, feeling of recognition 16%, and benefits 14%. Next were location and relationship, with boss rounding out double-digit responses.

Respondents’ advice

Advice from others can be instructive to those who like to learn without necessarily taking their own lumps.

Among 93 bits of advice offered, 42% (39) had to do with continuing education, 37% (34) offered workplace strategies for success, and other comments, approximately 7% each (6 or 7 responses), centered on attitude, communication, and degree or area of specialty. A sampling of advice follows by category.

Continue education

I would recommend keeping up with technology trends. This is an ever-changing field and experience needs to be combined with technical knowledge acquired from books and/or magazines to be effective in this career. Experience alone is just not enough. In addition, even when this is a technical career, personal management skills and leadership are important components that can make you a more effective engineer.

Follow trends.

Never stop learning.

Just dig in and learn one thing at a time. Understand how that new bit of info impacts everything else you’ve learned.

Make the time to study. Set aside time each week to improve you CAD skills, programming skills, and design/specification work.

Learn all you can about all aspects of your job field.

Like the kind of work you do and get plenty of hands-on experience. Keep up-to-date technically and keep your eyes open to new products and discoveries that may apply to your field of work.

Diversify, gain knowledge on as many control platforms as possible.

As long as the U.S. has manufacturing [we manufacturer more than any other country], control engineers will be needed. So great is the career potential. Stay up with technology and don’t be afraid to understand and work at the fundamental level.

Stay current with the latest technology. The more you know, the more valuable you are.

Work for a company that will allow time for training.

It is a fantastic career which will never cause boredom. It will always have technology improvements which you need to learn and refresh your brain.

Push for as much training as you can.

Study new and old technologies. Not all engineering jobs are "cutting edge / newest technology." The role of a controls engineer in today’s factory spans electrical power, automated controls, and instrumentation, where, in the past, this was the work of three engineers.

Get experience with the systems you are trying to control.

Focus on learning how the systems you control operate. Learn how to test and specify valves, instrumentation, and how to troubleshoot communication issues.

Subscribe to courses related to your job and keep studying and improving your knowledge.

Multiply degrees and multiply languages.

Stay up with the latest technology and work hard.

Study and get experience with different equipment and software any chance you get. (They keep coming around again and again.)

Keep learning the latest technologies in your field.

Keep going to school. It helps you stay sharp and makes you better prepared for the next challenge.

Learn as much as you can to make yourself as marketable as possible.

Learn as much about everything that you can. Call tech support as often as needed.

Find a job environment where you can be part of a team of experienced engineers and be mentored. Most of your value as an engineer is based upon your experience, and you can learn so much from seasoned engineers.

Try to broaden your expertise as much as possible; this increases your value as an employee. Maintain a good attitude regardless of what projects you undertake; this will make you and everyone around you a lot happier and more productive.

It is a white-collar job. High level of skills and knowledge are needed. Keep yourself updated with latest technology. In general, the organization will expect a lot from you; to fulfill that, work hard and gain managerial skills.

Become familiar with how plant processes, control elements, and sensors work

Broader knowledge makes you more valuable.

If you’re doing controls application and support in manufacturing, get out in the plant and learn everything you can from your instrument engineers and technicians, as well as your operators. This [controls engineer] is a great job if you like hands-on experience and immediate results from your efforts. You should enjoy working to span all departments to pull together information, define the problem, design, and implement solutions.

Workplace strategies

Learn as much as you can. You will learn the most going on-site.

Look for long-term projects!

Find a job that pays you well and gives enough opportunity to learn continuously.

Don’t get frustrated at the first year of your career. Test yourself with several engineering fields…. Learn some additional languages. Enjoy every day of your work week!

Have a marketable, portable skill set. Portable means you can pick up and move to another geographic area and retain a high marketability.

Be involved in the entire plant process.

Find an industry you find fascinating rather than just follow the cash as I did.

Always look ahead.

Choose a growing industry.

Keep your mind open to travel around the world.

Be flexible, learn multiple controllers, and be open to change.

Always organize your time.

Understand design challenges from the perspective of other disciplines.

Stay alert to the company environment, diversify your skills, have fun.

Don’t compromise on your work-life balance.

Develop project management skills.

Learn as many communications protocols as possible and as many programming languages. Keep up-to-date with current and latest standards.

If your employer does not recognize or understand what you can do for the company, you need to search out an employer that does. Do not sit around expecting the leopard to change its spots!

Stay informed on everything you can, no matter if you think it’s your job or not. Be seen as a contributor.

Never give up on yourself, and never limit yourself when it comes to career or ability.

Don’t get fired!

Increase the variety of experience.

Work out of Venezuela.

Start at the bottom; there is a lot to learn.

You need experience before taking on the big jobs.

Spend the first few years “immersing” yourself in the technology of automation AND in the process itself. DO NOT under any circumstances ignore the process. It has always been assumed that the technological leaps in the automation field are tremendous and one needs to spend most, if not all the time just keeping track of this. HOWEVER, NO ONE in the field of automation can get ahead without an implicit understanding of the manufacturing process and especially without understanding how this is changing the field of automation not incrementally but drastically.

We have to increase the automation and IT of our lines and systems.

Practice time management.

Be proactive; do not to sit on sideline and wait.

It is important in automation to know the process (plants, refinery) to give quick answers to prevent blackouts or plant outages.

For advancement, a well-managed and structured company is always the best choice. If the company is well structured, then career and financial advancements are guaranteed; it’s just a matter of time regardless of the current situation.

Focus on technological depth and offer creative solutions to problems.

Broaden experience, don’t pigeonhole yourself.


Enjoy what you do; if you do not like what you are doing, change careers and do something else.

Keep working hard.

Try to learn as much from others and be positive.

Do what you love.

Enjoy what you do.

It’s a great career, very challenging, always with new and different products. Salary and benefits are usually good for this position [from a manager with EE degree].

Love what you do. Pick a topic and be the “go to” person


Understand the business impact of your work and be able to convey that to your management.

Please be aware that most facility managers see automation as a tool to reduce head count. Dealing with people who have this mind-set will be the only thing irritating about this career. Arm yourself with the fact that automation is a way to improve efficiencies, production, and reduce risk of exposure to injuries for personal. Be prepared for a very rewarding career!

Have confidence in expressing your thoughts and ideas to receive respect. Be known as the best in some aspect of your job.

Diversify your knowledge; create networks outside of engineering

Actively manage your external networks and activities.

Create a strong network of colleagues for support, professional and technical.

Persist in gaining recognition for efforts; there are lots of career opportunities out there.

Degree or specialty


Avoid control engineering; get into process engineering.

Get a degree to be fairly compensated.


Study computers.

Robotics and aeronautical engineering.

Survey details

Control Engineering published a link to an online survey and received 165 responses between Jan. 26 and Feb. 16. A short article about the survey was published in the February 2012 print and digital edition, and it was mentioned in several Control Engineering e-mail newsletters. As an incentive, one $100 gift card was awarded randomly to a survey respondent. Respondents were not limited to subscribers; anyone could take the survey; 134 responses were qualified based on those who said they were currently doing engineering or managing engineering functions at the field or corporate level within their companies. Responses per question varied from 63 on some optional questions to 134 for the mandatory questions.

Click here to download the complete 2012 salary and career survey results.

– Mark T. Hoske, content manager with Control Engineering, CFE Media, can be reached at Amanda McLeman, managing editor, posted the questions and compiled the accompanying report.

Project management advice

Video and article: Design system integration projects for success – See tips and tricks on automation and control system integration project management: Advice from the 2012 System Integrator of the Year winners.

Stay Involved, Get The Most From An Automation Project – Automation system integrators advise end users to track what’s happening at every stage of and automation project.

IT And Engineering Insight: Seven Habits Of Unsuccessful Projects

More career-related article links

Leaders Under 40, Control Engineering class of 2011 

System Integrators of 2012 Award Winners